Friday, October 29, 2010

Suffixes and Epitaphs

Today's Dynastology will have to be brief due to time constraints. Blame my anthropology teacher. Back to the lesson...
Alexander III the Great, King of Macedon
Throughout history, there has been a strong tradition of giving suffixes and/or epitaphs to rulers. Sometimes it is to show pride or signify an accomplishment. Other times it is because the people want to remember how horrible a tyrant was during his life. In either case, historians and students of history (both willing and unwilling) know many of the most famous rulers in history by their suffixes rather than their regnal names. Here's an example: Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great. His importance is so great to historians that most sources use his suffixed name rather than his regnal name. And so it goes with many famous rulers throughout history.
Xerxes I the Great, Shahanshah of Persia
"Great" is perhaps the most well-established suffix among rulers. It initially was part of the title of the Persian "King of Kings", the Shahanshah, which became "Great King", or Padishah. Eventually, the "Great" became a title attributed to some rulers rather than granted at birth. Despite this, many Persian rulers are known as "the Great" today, including Cyrus II, Darius I, and Xerxes I of Biblical tradition. In fact, the very reason Alexander III is known as Alexander the Great is due to his conquest of Persia, whereupon he took on the title "Great King". It was only later, during Roman Imperial times, that the cult of Alexander permanently affixed the epitaph.

There really is no specific reason that someone becomes known as "the Great". Often the ruler is either the founder of a dynasty or the first important figure of one. In that role, they often conquered many enemies, captured new territories, and/or were considered wise or good. Such is the case with many of the "founders" throughout the world:
  • Charlemagne ("Charles the Great" in French) reestablished the Western Roman Empire and helped push back the Moors in southern France.
  • Akbar the Great expanded the borders of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, making India one of the most powerful nations in the world for a short time.
  • Alfred the Great is considered the first "English" monarch, having conquered most of the rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England and establishing a new centralized form of government in England.
  • Chandragupta Maurya the Great successfully conquered the Indian subcontinent in the 4th century BCE, becoming the first true emperor of India.
  • Ivan the Great helped centralize and establish the Russian state in the late 15th century and conquered a ton of land back from the Mongol Golden Horde.
  • Justinian the Great is often thought of as the official founder of the Byzantine Empire, despite ruling in the 6th, rather than 5th, century. He expanded the borders of Rome so much that most of Italy was recaptured and the Ostrogoths were made into subjects of Byzantium.
  • Otto the Great became the first of the Holy Roman Emperors and helped establish the base of the empire in Germany, rather than France or Italy.
These are just some of the "Greats" that earned their titles partially for being first or foremost among monarchs. Other types of "Great" have come and gone, such as Henry IV of France who was known as great for his dashing good looks, but the number one characteristic that makes a non-founder "Great" is having done something important for the country. Important "Greats" include:
  • Pompey the Great, who lived in the time of Julius Caesar but was never inclined to take advantage of the system like Caesar ended up doing.
  • Ramon Berenguer the Great ruled in Barcelona during the early 12th century and helped expand Barcelona across the Pyrenees and expanded its influence as well.
  • Rhodri the Great was a ruler in Gwynedd, Wales, during the 9th century, and during his reign, he expanded the kingdom to include most of modern-day Wales.
  • Naresuan the Great of Thailand fought against Burma for fifteen years during the late 16th century to make Thailand independent again.
  • Pope Leo the Great helped establish the Papacy as the supreme authority in Western Europe.
  • Frederick the Great helped unify Brandenburg and Prussia in the 18th century and was a noted patron of Voltaire and other enlightened philosophers.
And so, as you can tell, there are many different criteria that lead to greatness among monarchs. All-in-all, there have been around 100 monarchs in history that are generally known as "the Great", although some are greater than others.

Many other suffixes have become attached to monarchs through the years, ones having to do with physical size ("the Fat", "the Grand", "the Short", "the Tall", "Longshanks") while others have more to do with their level of courage or capabilities in combat ("the Brave", "the Bold", "the Hammer", "Ironside", "the Lion"). Still, character itself is often the distinguishing mark of a suffix: "the Bad", "the Cruel", "the Devil", "the Drunkard", "the Mad", "the Terrible", "the Merry", or "the Noble". And when all else fails, there is always the monarch's level of piety: "the Monk", "the Chaste", "the Catholic", "the Pious", or "the Holy". Lastly, there is the jab at a monarch's actual physical form, which often come about in a monarch's lifetime: "the Bald", "the Blind", "Crouchback", "the Fair", "the Gouty", or "the Handsome". In the end, there are an infinite number of suffixes that can be affixed to a monarch's name, and some monarchs have been known by more than one name, such as William the Conqueror, who was William the Bastard in Normandy.

Yet despite all these titles, there is one that even today holds a higher place than all of them. Perhaps it is because it requires a further level of affirmation or because it places the monarch within the realm of religion, but to be made into a Saint and be known by that suffix is perhaps the most noble goal of any monarch. Saintly monarchs have been rare in the past five centuries, but prior to that time it was quite common, especially during the early Medieval period. In fact, a cult of saints developed in Merovingian France and some of those saints are still well-known today.

The Wilton Diptych depicting Edmund the Martyr, Edward the Confessor, and John the Baptist
The reason why royal saints were so common in the first millennium of Christianity was because there was no formalized canonization process as there is today. Indeed, if the people liked someone well enough and felt they were adequately holy, they could become saints through popular proclamation. The only requirement was that the monarch had died. So many royals in the early Middle Ages were sainted, and today some are rarely even acknowledged as saints, such as St. Edward the Confessor of England.

In Anglo-Saxon England, a short-lived cult of saints developed in the House of Wessex:
  • St. Alfred the Great, rarely known as that today, was possibly canonized and is known as a "Hero of the Christian Church" by reviving holy reading and the monastic orders of England.
  • St. Edmund the Martyr was made a saint after being killed by Danish Vikings.
  • St. Edward the Confessor was known as a holy man and was said to have performed miracles.
  • St. Edward the Martyr was killed in what was considered an unjust murder. His relics were considered holy far before Edward became a saint.
  • St. Æthelbert II of East Anglia was put to death by a pagan and later canonized.
  • St. Edwin of Northumbria was canonized after bringing Christianity to the Northumbrians.
St. Stephan I, King of Hungary
Other prominent sainted monarchs include:
  • St. Louis IX was a devout Catholic who built many churches around France. After his death, many miracles were attributed to his relics and he remains one of the best known royal saints.
  • Good King Wenceslaus was a Christian king who was venerated after he died a martyr's death.
  • St. Stephen of Hungary was the first king and Christian ruler of Hungary. He is known as the first of the "confessor" kings for his devotion to the Bible and church.
  • St. Henry II helped establish the temporal domains of the bishops against the claims of monasteries.
  • St. Constantine I made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire and who acted as a model for later monarchs to follow.
St. Margaret of Scotland
There are many more saintly monarchs in history, and even more saintly wives and children. St. Margaret of Scotland is probably the most important saintly wife in regards to dynastology, as it was through her children that the Norman and Angevin kings of England were able to claim descent from the older Anglo-Saxon dynasty. She was sainted for being a righteous person, for charity and for services to the church, a list of attributes common to many saintly royals. She remains the Patron Saint of Scotland to this day.

Suffixes may have gone the way of the dodo bird, but they are still used to describe historical figures. Since monarchs retain little actual power in the 21st century, it is unlikely any of them will get suffixes appended to their names. Unfortunately, that breeds a suffix of its own, which may as well describe the state of royal affairs in the world today as well, "the Do-Nothing"s. Until next week...

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